This short documentary, Angola for Life, details the story of Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, where most inmates are sentenced with no hope for parole. The majority of prisoners there will never leave. On the one hand, it is a story of redemption. Angola was once one of the most violent prisons in the country, but has been transformed into a place that gives inmates a reason to live. It is a place that takes its role as a “correctional” facility seriously, giving inmates moral and practical training and teaches them how to live in a society, even if that society is not the one on the outside.
Yet on the other hand, this is not Bastoy Prison in Norway. On the grounds of a former slave plantation, a population of overwhelmingly black men are put to work for the state and for for-profit business, and given next to nothing in payment. Prisoners who choose not to work can face harsh punishments, including the restriction of visitation rights from their families, and solitary confinement. Moral education comes mostly in the form of religion, and is predominantly Christian. The warden suggests that religion is just the most effective way to provide a moral center, and that any religion is welcome. But it would be hard to believe anyone from another religion, let alone an atheist, would find welcome there.
It presents a complicated picture. It is clear from the documentary that lives have been changed for the better since Angola took on its new focus, and yet it is hard to ignore the evil of the system that profits economically from prison labor.
One is left with the same baffling question that both the warden and the reporter has (I’m paraphrasing): why does it take violent crime, often murder, before we start to provide education, training, even support for mental health–in essence, hope–to the marginalized in our society? It is entirely backwards.
And of course, most prisons are not Angola. America has the highest prison population in the world, increasingly run by for-profit corporations that have every incentive to keep their labor force incarcerated.
I’d encourage you to watch the documentary–it is just 13 minutes long.
But I would also encourage you to follow it up with this article, also from The Atlantic that comments on some of the complexities and realities of the prison labor system. Angola, though it may be better than many, is not the best we can do. Its exceptional nature simply highlights the extreme brokenness of the system to which it belongs.